I mean that figuratively, but Wanted does it almost literally. There’s a running gun battle late in the film that essentially takes that local sacred cow film Equilibrium, bends it over and administers a jolly rogering. It’s a corker of a scene, and I won’t even give away the best part of it – suffice it to say that Timur Bekmambetov looked at the human shield scene from Total Recall and decided to up the ante a little bit.
Wanted, quite simply, kicks ass. It’s not a film filled with deep thoughts and important thematic messages, but that doesn’t mean you should turn off your brain while watching it. Instead, keep your brain kicked into high gear so that you can truly appreciate the levels of absurdity and impossibility this film reaches. I’ve heard it compared to Torque, and while I don’t think Wanted quite reaches those hallowed levels of stupidity, it’s a fairly apt comparison. There’s not a moment in this film that feels realistic, and I love it for that reason.
Timur Bekmambetov is best known for the Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, two fantastical, eye popping pieces of incoherent weirdness. Wanted is very much in that vein – there’s no doubting the same guy behind Night Watch directed this one – but with a little bit less incoherence and a lot less straight up weirdness. James McAvoy is Jack’s Boring Life – the opening scenes have shades of Fight Club as we see that his character is a nobody with a shitty job and a girlfriend who fucks his best friend on the regular. When Angelina Jolie shows up at his local supermarket telling him that he’s the son of the greatest assassin alive (at least until earlier that evening, when he got whacked) and then Thomas Kretschmann shows up guns ablazing, leading to a car chase that feels like Grand Theft Auto on the big screen, he realizes there’s another option.
That option is working for Morgan Freeman and his band of assassins, carrying out hits at the behest of the Loom of Fate, sort of like the Chalk of Destiny but with more fiber. The movie barely lets up for a moment as McAvoy’s character discovers his own special abilities, including a heart that can beat up to 400 times a minute, and adrenaline levels that allow him to slow the whole world down – which comes in handy when he wants to put a curve on a bullet, sending it around obstacles.
Sure, none of this makes actual sense, but it’s all huge pop fun. The movie is ostensibly based on the comic by Mark Millar and JG Jones, but all the similarities seem to begin and end at the set up and the final line of dialogue. Which is just as well – the comic Wanted has its moments, but it’s mostly the kind of faux-edgy that Millar excels in. Bekmambetov’s movie discards all of the poking fun at superheroes stuff and focuses on topping himself from set piece to set piece. By the end you’re almost exhausted (and part of that is because the opening of the third act inexplicably drags, even with a huge train derailment action scene), but Bekmambetov knows how to end his picture; people waiting in line will see the previous showing’s audience walking out of the theater buzzing.
Perhaps the most curious thing about the movie is how desexualized it is. This is, right from the start, an R-rated film. There was never a question of this being PG-13, yet besides an Angelina Jolie butt shot and a kiss, there’s no real sexual content. Looking at Night and Day Watch, it seems like Bekmambetov doesn’t tend to go there, but in this set up – a young man comes into his own under the tutelage of an impossibly sexy assassin – it’s strange that things stay so very chaste.
Maybe it’s for the best. McAvoy and Jolie don’t have the most sizzling chemistry; in fact they sometimes feel like they’re in different films. Jolie has boasted in the press about how she removed her character’s lines, and she’s reduced herself to this lurking presence in many scenes, showing off arms so spindly it’s hard to imagine she’s able to lift the guns she’s shooting. Universal is selling the film largely on her, which is sort of misleading, as she has one big action scene right up front and then is mostly just… there.
Bekmambetov surrounds McAvoy with other colorful types, including Night Watch‘s Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) as a weirdo rat trainer. He and the others (including eternally background badass Common) participate in McAvoy’s training to become an assassin. It’s a sequence that might be a touch too long but is filled with lots of painful fun – McAvoy gets his ass minced while learning the ropes. He plays the change in the character well, and he doesn’t seem afraid of embracing the male empowerment fantasy – his character at the end of the movie isn’t much of a nice guy, but he’s cool as hell.
There’s a certain cavalier attitude towards the violence in the film that will turn off some viewers, but for me it works – this is a fantasy movie, set in a world as real as Middle Earth, just more recognizable to us. This movie is filled with the kinds of moments that play out in the minds of powerless people everywhere – fantasies of revenge and control, fantasies of swift, good-looking and violent retribution. Bekmambetov understands those feelings, but he also understands his craft enough not to make a Columbine blueprint but something escapist, something fun. I hate to make the same comparison twice in a review, but again, Grand Theft Auto is what kept coming to mind when watching the film – things are just real enough, just recognizable enough that when your car launches into the air, does a 360 and lands on its wheels you buy it but are also exhilarated by the insanity of it. As a movie Wanted sometimes feels like those times in GTA when you tool around the streets just putting bullets in people.
I’m not saying Wanted‘s a great film, but it’s a great time at the theater. Some will argue that films like this – breakneck paced, logically suspect, endlessly violent – are a symptom of what’s wrong with American cinema today. I’d argue that it’s bad versions of films like this that are wrong with the cinema; movies like Wanted or Crank or Running Scared are examples of smart people who know how to make movies doing so with joyful abandon. Sometimes you want to listen to a symphony, sometimes you want to listen to a beautifully crafted pop song. But sometimes you want to crank the radio and bang your head, and that’s why God (and Timur Bekmambetov) gave you Wanted.